In a gladiator-style arena made of bulletproof glass and steel, a fierce spectacle of robot-on-robot violence plays out while future generations of machinists cheer them on. Homemade machines duel to the death in conflict after grisly conflict, controlled by teenage masters.

But what appears to be a ring of destruction, as riveting as any Hunger Games competition, is actually contributing to the development of tomorrow’s manufacturing workforce, an industry primed for growth as a generation of Baby Boomers retire.

Southwestern Pennsylvania BotsIQ, a hands-on program where high school students design and build competitive robots, cloaks manufacturing workforce development under the guise of an annual battle-of-the-bots competition.

Throughout the school year, 85 teams from 63 schools in southwestern Pennsylvania have worked diligently to perfect their robots in preparation for the upcoming competitions. High school students from northern communities will test their designs during the BotsIQ competition on March 10 at Butler County Community College; Westmoreland County Community College will host competitions on March 18 and 19. The finals (previous winners include Plum High School and Hempfield Area High School) are set for April 8 and 9.

Program Manager Sarah Brooks says BotsIQ attempts to fill the skills gap within the region’s manufacturing industry. By 2020, 40 percent of the manufacturing workforce will reach retirement age, according to SWPA BotsIQ. And within the next 10 years, 130,000 manufacturing jobs will be available in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Beyond hands-on experience with designing, building and engineering a robot, high schoolers have the opportunity to develop a relationship with the local manufacturing industry that can lead to possible job offers after graduation, Brooks says. The industry recruiters cultivate an interest in manufacturing careers for BotsIQ kids by leading tours of their plants and creating internship and junior apprenticeship programs.

“We want [industry representatives] to walk through our pits—which is where the kids are working when they’re not fighting their ‘bots—and talk to our kids,” Brooks says.

The high school tech ed teachers have traditionally advised the BotsIQ kids, but educators from physics, English, business tech and gifted departments have joined the team efforts recently. Teachers from those disciplines are especially helpful when it comes to guiding the engineering documentation that each team is required to complete.

The BotsIQ organizers created a rubric—including resumes, cover letters, CAD programs and drawings, and accounting information about fundraising and promotion—that mimics manufacturing documentation and measures career readiness.

The range of kids competing in BotsIQ has broadened over the years too, which teaches important life lessons about collaboration and sharing ownership of the project, Brooks says.

“Our kids come from all different socioeconomic backgrounds and have different hobbies,” she adds. “You can have a cheerleader next to a computer kid, and they’re willing to take each other’s ideas on.”

Since its beginnings in 2006 with a mere six schools, BotsIQ has familiarized 5,000 kids with manufacturing. And over the years, the BotsIQ program has evolved as quickly as the skills of the tech-savvy kids building the robots.

“[In 2006], the robots looked like toaster ovens and moved slow and didn’t do much,” Brooks says. “Now our robots are very fast, they’re powerful, and it’s really exploded among the teams.”

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Melanie is a free-lance copywriter and journalist whose work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Venus Zine and Maniac Magazine.